You’d be forgiven for thinking Man Utd’s midfielders had never met before Wednesday night’s match against Valencia. Jose Mourinho set up his side in a 4-3-3, with Pogba, Fred & Fellaini playing in the midfield 3 and Andreas Pereira and Juan Mata flanking Romelu Lukaku. Off the ball, United naturally reverted to a 4-1-4-1, with Mata looking to provide some much-needed quality on the ball and Pereira looking to compensate for the lack of defensive competency on the left, with Pogba and Rojo contributing a single defensive action between them in the first half. Nobody across that second bank of four had a clear role: Valencia’s lack of aerial threat rendered Marouane Fellaini fairly redundant, the final third was too congested with red shirts for Pogba to carry the ball and draw pressure, and Fred grew increasingly frustrated with not having an advancing full-back to switch the ball to.
Fred’s frustration summarised the feelings of many Man Utd fans. We’ve seen the importance of attacking full-backs spike hugely in recent years, and Man Utd – as they are with their lack of ball-playing centre backs – are behind the times. Look around Europe this season: Benjamn Mendy at Man City, Andy Robertson at Liverpool, João Cancelo at Juve, Nicolas Tagliafico at Ajax – the best sides across the continent at the moment are shifting the bulk of the creative responsibility to full-backs and playing with inverted wingers. The attacking output offered by Man Utd’s full-backs is limited: Ashley Young is a frequent but limited crosser, Antonio Valencia seems insistent on pulling the ball back to the half space whenever he’s in a position to cross & Luke Shaw has looked promising but his development has been stunted by injury and requires and warrants patience.
Dalot’s crosses vs. Fulham

Diogo Dalot could offer Jose Mourinho an easy solution to a complex situation. The Golden Boy nominee has clocked a meager 378 minutes in all competitions this season, but has been a revelation when he has played. The teenager has stayed as wide as possible in a Man Utd shirt so far, stretching the opposition defense and offering the more creative components of the midfield (Pogba, Fred) more space to operate. Mourinho’s attack has a frustrating tendency to collapse in on the midfield as they grow frustrated with United’s laborious transitions – this ultimately leads to creators, the most common culprits being Alexis and Pogba, occupying the same areas of the pitch and effectively taking each other out of the game. Dalot’s ability to frequently make progressive runs into the final third lessens the temptation for the forward line to retreat and installs a genuine belief that chances will come, it’s no coincidence that Manchester United have scored at least two goals every time Diogo Dalot has started. Most importantly,  Dalot is both a frequent and accurate crosser, completing 62.5% of the 13 crosses he’s attempted in the Premier League so far. His cross plot from the game against Fulham highlights the quality of the positions that the teenager is crossing from. 3 of the crosses that he completed came immediately after he’d dribbled past an opponent, whereas Antonio Valencia hasn’t completed a dribble in the oppositions half this season. Of course, Fulham are an extraordinarily poor defensive side, but  Dalot also lead United in crosses against Arsenal.

Man Utd’s central midfield area needs a major reshuffle:: Paul Pogba, Fred & Andreas Pereira are the most technically gifted players available to Man Utd at the moment but none of them have locked down a place in Jose Mourinho’s starting XI, whilst Marouane Fellaini and Nemanja Matic are reliable but limited. The quick-fix that Mourinho has reverted to in recent weeks is to bring in Juan Mata, giving the Spaniard the unenviable task of stitching things together within Man Utd’s busy and unorganised attacking structure. Mata offers Utd a wealth of creativity, but he’s ultimately another body in that packed-out final third and deploying him is a sacrifice defensively, which is something that this current Man Utd side simply cannot afford. Jose Mourinho has to instate Diogo Dalot as his starting right full-back if he wants to improve Utd as an attacking side. The reality is that the attacking structure is flawed and arguably out-dated – and that probably isn’t going to change under Mourinho. Having Dalot as a constant threat down the flank improves Utd’s ability to attack massively, the team needs a major structural overhaul, but the threat that Dalot offers can be enough to temporarily override that. If Mourinho is afforded a quality centre back in January, we may see Utd switch to a 3-5-2 (something which Mourinho has clearly wanted to do since at least pre-season) and regain some sort of attacking structure, but for now Utd have to put their trust in the teenager in order to provide at least one consistent attacking outlet.

dalot

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